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Springfield City Council may soon take up ‘nuisance property’ report in bid to fix up declining neighborhoods

Springfield City Manager Jason Gage on April 3, 2023 in his office at the City of Springfield's Busch Building.
Gregory Holman/KSMU
Springfield City Manager Jason Gage on April 3, 2023 in his office at the City of Springfield's Busch Building. When presented with a report on chronic nuisance properties in Springfield recently, Gage worried that rental inspections or other regulations might increase housing costs, and therefore homelessness.

Last week, a citizen-driven report on what to do about run-down Springfield homes was made public by the Springfield News-Leader. The Nuisance Property Work Group offers unusually pointed criticism of the city’s track record for making sure homes are livable.

A new report by a collection of 27 Springfield volunteers known as the Nuisance Property Work Group was made public last week. It said city building inspectors work “tirelessly” to address substandard housing, but there aren’t enough of them.

Citing the new Restore SGF historic neighborhood plan, it said the city has a “lack of affordable housing options and a lack of bold leadership” and that “the time has come to more assertively address the chronic nuisance properties that have plagued Springfield for far too long.”

The new report found almost 18,000 residential building code violations from 2015 through 2021 — roughly 3,000 per year — but said that, because enforcement is complaint-based, Springfield may be “oblivious” to the true scale of the problem.

Rusty Worley is with Springfield’s Neighborhood Advisory Council, one of the groups that volunteered for the report — which is set to be presented to City Council later this year. KSMU talked to him last week.

KSMU's Gregory Holman said, “Rusty I’ve been here as a citizen resident, as a journalist, for 20 years. I’ve read a lot of reports of this kind. They typically, in my assessment, they have pretty sanitized language. But the tone here seems a lot more pointed than most civic reports of this type. It seems to be written by, or influenced by, neighborhood residents who are pretty fed up. Is that a fair assessment? What’s going on here?”

Worley replied, “Well, I don’t think ‘fed up’ is necessarily the way to go […] I do think it is led by neighborhood advocates with openness to lots of different perspectives, working with city staff, recognizing that we need to be working alongside city staff. It’s not city staff’s responsibility. It’s all of us, working together to improve our community.”

Worley said the core goal of the Nuisance Property Work Group is to make sure properties are clear of “life safety” issues, like dangerous electrical wiring or an unsafe roof.

'We have to really work together'

Isabelle Jimenez Walker is a local realtor and civic volunteer. She was one of the 27 report-writers.

“Well, when we got together and start putting this plan together," she said, "we were being honest about what was happening and what was going on, you know, not pointing fingers, because we have to really work together to make this work for everybody. And, you know, with aging stock, you know, that that affects us all. And the way that owners or landlords are addressing that, you know, they everybody needs to help each other and work together in the community.”

When City Council was recently emailed a copy of the plan, Springfield City Manager Jason Gage replied in writing to the leaders of the Nuisance Property group. Gage, who reports to City Council, worried that if Springfield imposed housing standards including rental inspections, housing costs could go up and kick people into homelessness.

“Nonprofits are a core lead with homeless services, and we look at the full program today, we still have many gaps and unfunded areas, whether it's physical capacity, whether it's volunteer or paid folks to help manage and coordinate all that," said Gage. "So yeah, if we took that, that number we tried to address today — which is probably somewhere between 600 and a couple thousand or more [homeless people] — and we have to add a few hundred or 1,000, or a couple thousand to it, that would be very, very difficult. And that's what first caused an alert in my mind to say, hey, we don't want to add people homeless on the street.”

He also said too much housing regulation could prompt backlash.

“If you own a property, there's there's a responsibility with that property. Unfortunately, not everyone does that," he said, "so, therefore, the government has to step in. We want to try to have a balanced approach to that. You don't want to be so hands-off that you lose your community. If you're too hands-on, and then you get folks complaining that the power of the government is actually oppressing them. And we don't want that, either.”

A problem dating back decades

Springfield’s had this problem before.

In the early 80s, the city faced a housing boom, according to news accounts archived by the Springfield-Greene County Library. City inspectors got stretched too thin to perform so-called “systematic” inspections house by house, as they had once done during the 20th century. As the 80s passed into the 90s, some residents complained about run-down neighborhoods.

City Council wanted to do something. In the mid-90s, they voted to adopt minimum housing standards in an ordinance called the “home maintenance bill.” A 25-member committee even helped rewrite language that seemed too tough on homeowners and landlords.

27 years ago this week, City Council passed the law. City inspectors performed a pilot test on the Phelps Grove neighborhood. More than 90 percent of 191 homes inspected failed the tests. Major blowback ensued, and the program was scuttled within weeks and ultimately removed from city code.

In 2000, the city floated a plan that would have required inspections only when a house was sold or a rental vacancy was filled. That didn’t go anywhere, either. Landlords and real estate interests claimed it was an intrusive, big-government plan that would drive up housing costs and potentially increase homelessness.

In 2018, a rental registration program went into effect. According to the Nuisance Work Group Report, it’s never been enforced.

After the April 4 election

Gage — Springfield’s city manager — said that in the aftermath of the April 4 City Council election, the new council will have to decide what it wants to do about nuisance home properties.

Whatever the city does, he said it will need an approach seeking “balance,” and, like the Nuisance Work Group itself, Gage points at the Ozarks’ ongoing poverty problem as tightly linked to housing issues.

“I think [the Nuisance Property Work Group report-writers] hit on it early, when they mentioned all the causes," he said. "Those are causes that we have a hard time getting our arms around —”

Holman, the KSMU reporter, interjected to quote from the Nuisance Property report: “You’re talking about 'low wages, lack of educational attainment, crime and other deeply rooted challenges’ that they state."

Gage answered, "Yes, yes. And all of those things typically lead back to social, economic factors in the community in one way or another, right? And so those are things that do not change overnight, and have not changed overnight in Springfield.

"So they're very difficult to deal with.”

Gregory Holman is a KSMU reporter and editor focusing on public affairs.